In my book, Chaos Is Not God’s Will, I give the detailed rationale for the controversial claim that tohu wabohu (Gen. 1:2) describes the disastrous result, at some point following God’s original good creation, when a created being used the gift of free will to rebel against God’s will.
Intelligent evil was (and still is) at work, distorting God’s original good purposes. The author of Genesis shows in the rest of the first chapter how God goes about restoring his intentions for the earth, which are the exact opposite of the chaotic conditions. The author does this by emphasizing a definite pattern in the creation story, showing that God has evil under control and patiently counter-acts and replaces it with acts of creativity, including the creation of humans to join God in fighting back against forces that oppose God.
The condition of the earth prior to creation is described in Genesis 1:2 as “tohu wabohu,” which can be translated “destroyed and desolate,” or “topsy turvey,” or, traditionally, “formless and void.” In each of the other 18 occurrences of the word “tohu,” the broad context is judgment for rebellion against God. It seems logical that the first occurrence of the term would also have been in the context of judgment, setting the tone for the remaining usages of the term in the Hebrew Bible.
As a description of the consequences of opposition to God’s ways, the figure of speech, tohu wabohu, also contains within itself the solution to addressing the root problem behind the chaos and desolation. Believers have the privilege of allowing God’s Spirit to work through them to demonstrate God’s glory, by bringing order out of chaos, and by overcoming evil with good (Hebrew, tob, a word play with the similar- sounding tohu). The rest of the Bible explains how to overcome and/or avoid tohu at various levels (physical, personal, family, social, political) or it shows what happens when tohu is not overcome. (The observable chaotic result can then be called tohu wabohu.) In Genesis 1, physical chaos is being overcome by God’s good creation.